From its opening scenes, the painterly style Kurosawa honed in many of his works is on display in Ran, one of the finest works of one of cinema’s most influential and impressive directors.
Against a verdant plain that seems to go on forever, we see several groups of horsemen, standing as if waiting for something. Motionless except for the gentle movement of the wind through the horse’s manes the shots are elegantly, plainly beautiful. So still and intricately laid out are these scenes, it’s almost difficult to believe they’re not the hand-painted images Kurosawa used as storyboards for his films. But they are also pregnant with anticipation, suddenly shattering the tension they’ve carried so carefully. As a boar bursts onto the scene, every rider leaps to action, trading in quiet contemplation for the thrill of the chase without sacrificing the somber sobriety that continues to dominate the hunt just as it did the wait.
It’s just a few minutes, but this opening sets the stage for inimitably for the totality of Ran. At nearly three hours, the film drifts with naturalistic pacing from meticulously arranged, meditative costume drama to scenes of intense violence, ranging in scope and size from the epic medieval battles that the work is known for to no less effective or noteworthy instances of more intimate, personal violence. Thanks largely to a masterful performance from Tatsuya Nakadai as the increasingly enfeebled patriarch at the center of the storm, the familial drama of the piece exists on an emotional scale that competes with some of the greatest battle scenes ever committed to film. In this, Ran borrows much of its pacing and style from the Noh dramas that so influenced Kurosawa in the course of his long career.
Ran is many things to many viewers. It is a beautifully crafted film. It is a family drama and a wartime epic. What it is not is an easy film. Close-up views that allow us to inhabit the same space as the characters in the film are all but unheard of in Ran. The long shots that dominate the work create a sense of impersonality between film and viewer — one is invited, arguably compelled to experience Ran as an onlooker, but never to participate or interact with it. Its characters are universally recognizable, but genuinely difficult to relate to.
Even at its most action-packed, Ran tends to keep us away from the heaviest of its bloodshed. This action, while not necessarily minimal, is frequently presented in long shots or from angles that don’t invite the participation of the viewer. Rather than following the action with his camera, Kurosawa creates a frame and lets the action fill it or not. It is an uncompromising, revolutionary, and yes, occasionally frustrating way to craft a feature film — but these very qualities are also among the watchwords of Kurosawa’s cinematic legacy. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the tactic might not have worked. Under the direction of Akira Kurosawa, it makes for a powerful and unyielding filmic vision of filmmaking that demands and rewards the attention of audiences today just as it did decades ago.
Later in the film, Kurosawa would turn the style on its ear, bringing the action to the forefront while plunging the audience into silence as Ichimonjo’s crew of loyal retainers is ruthlessly, gruesomely slaughtered. The silence is an oppressive counterpoint to the gore and brutality so vividly and suddenly on display in the face of the restraint demonstrated by Ran thus far. Only after minutes that seem like hours is the silence finally shattered by a single gunshot that throws the scene into disarray. The noise of the battlefield immediately shifts from notably absent to utterly overwhelming enveloping the scene in the wails of the wounded and the charging of hooves over stone and flesh. The wound of the world at war becomes all the audience can hear, the only sound that has ever been.
Ran is often cited as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s,King Lear, a comparison that’s not necessarily inaccurate but certainly imperfect. A student of history, Kurosawa reportedly drew much of his inspiration for Ran from Japanese historical tales, incorporating elements from one of the Bard’s most challenging dramas only after the fact, While the similarities are present enough to merit discussion, to write Ran off as an adaptation is to do a disservice to the work and the totality of sources that make up its foundation.
Aesthetically arresting, visually sumptuous, and quietly complicated, Ran is a feast for the eyes and, perhaps more than any of Kurosawa’s other works, a challenge to his audience. It may be second to none of Kurosawa’s films in formality and strictness of framing — the film is not so much rigid as it is unbending, a vision so fully realized that it defies the personal interpretation of modern moviegoers are so accustomed to. Ran refuses to be anything but what it is. But what it is is a thing so vast, a work so intricately and carefully crafted, that it leaves no space for being anything else, and does so without apologies or second thoughts. — Ian Chant
This article was originally published on 20 October 2010.